Painted on November 1, 1888
A majestic allée at the peak of its autumnal splendor is the subject of Van Gogh's magnificent L'Allée des Alyscamps, his Arles-period painting from November 1, 1888. This was the very moment in Van Gogh's career when his most legendary expressions of great beauty and exuberance were captured on canvas. Works such as Sunflowers, Self-Portrait, L'Arlesienne, the Night Café, The Sower and the postman Monsieur Roulin were all brilliantly realized with unparalleled creative force during this period, and the unrestrained passion of this artistic genius was at its apotheosis. For two months during the fall of 1888 Van Gogh painted in the company of his close friend Paul Gauguin.... Over the passing weeks conflicts increasingly arose between the two artists, with the simmering tension ultimately resulting in Van Gogh's violent breakdown at the end of the year. But the present work, created during those exciting first days of their time together, presents the glorious product of Van Gogh's ambitious undertaking.
The scene depicted here is the central thoroughfare of the Alyscamps, one of the most famous Roman burial grounds in all of Europe.... Much romanticized by 19th century Romantic writers, Alyscamps was well-known to artists during Van Gogh's time, and his choice to paint here would have been a foregone conclusion for any artist spending time in Arles.
In Van Gogh's depiction here, the ruins of Romanesque sarcophagi are visible down the tree-lined promenade known as the Allée des Tombeaux, now a popular lovers' lane and parade ground for fashionable and single Arlesiennes of questionable virtue.... Alyscamps offered an accessible place for tourists and locals to experience the tranquility and beauty of the Provençale countryside. On October 29th, both artists completed views of the grounds, with Gauguin focusing on three women walking alongside the canal with the bell tower of the 12th century church of St. Honorat in the background. Van Gogh, however, situated himself in the middle of the allée, painting the smokestacks of the railway workshop across the canal on the left and the archway of the church in the distance, while the ruins of ancient crypts flank a solitary couple taking a romantic stroll. Two days later, on the Feast of All Saints', the artists returned to the allée, depicting the colorful foliage in all of its splendor. Gauguin positioned his easel at the end of the promenade at the portico of the church, and Van Gogh looked down the dramatic allée towards the direction of Saint-Accurse chapel to paint the present picture.
L'allée des Alyscamps presents a more formal schematization and vastly grander perspective than did the one Van Gogh had painted two days earlier. While slightly larger in size, this second composition presents a vertical alignment of trees that creates an illusion of profound depth and frames the sky so that it appears to be a giant funnel lifting into the heavens. All Saints' Day would have been a popular one to stroll through the grounds of the sacred cemetery, Van Gogh captures the visitors as they walk from the church. Figures appear in motion down the great expanse of the promenade, with the rhythm of their gate reverberating in the colored patches along the pathway. In a letter to Bernard written on November 2, the artist described his Alyscamps picture as a "study of the whole avenue, entirely yellow."
Van Gogh described the support on which he painted to be "burlap," but recent scholarship suggests that it is actually rough jute. He and Gauguin had purchased this material in bulk and primed themselves, and Van Gogh used it for the first time for this picture. Both artists were fascinated by the visual effect that the coarse surface lent to their compositions, and they exploited this property differently in their works. Whereas Gauguin painted with thinner layers of paint that allowed the texture of the weave to appear more clearly, Van Gogh applied his paint impulsively and with thick slashes, building up the surface texture dramatically in areas and allowing colors to blend more fluidly.
But these different approaches to painting on jute became a point of debate, sowing the seeds for future conflicts between the two artists. Writing to Émile Bernard in mid-November, Gauguin alluded to his lack of compatibility with his partner, taking issue with the very manner by which he paints: "In general, Vincent and I agree on very few topics, and especially not on painting... He appreciates the hazards of thick paint as Monticelli uses it, whereas I detest any form of tampering by brushwork" (R. Brettell, op. cit., p. 113). Van Gogh criticized Gauguin's highly controlled painterly style, which he believed was at the expense of authentic creative expression. "Aren't we seeking intensity of thought rather than tranquility of touch?" he lamented. "Under the conditions of working spontaneously, on the spot, and given the character of it, is a calm, well-regulated touch always possible? Goodness gracious - as little, it seems to me, as during an assault in a fencing match (quoted in D. Silverman, op.cit., p.206)." This last quip was apparently a thinly-veiled attack on Gauguin, who prided himself at being an accomplished fencer and was a believer that "the head, always the head" should prevail in painting. Van Gogh, however, prided himself on the frenetic pace of his execution, and the slow and meticulous pace of his companion, who often completed his paintings within the studio, were antithetical to this approach. In due time, the artists' ideological differences would send them on different courses, with Gauguin deciding to leave France for the South Pacific. The anxiety caused by Gauguin's scheduled departure, among other things, prompted Van Gogh to commit the legendary act of self-mutilation that December, which sent him to the hospital in Saint-Remy for a period of recovery. But the present picture, created at the "honeymoon" phase of the Arles period, evidences the joyous expressive power that Van Gogh possessed at the beginning of this most important collaboration.
In the days following his completion of the present composition, Van Gogh would go on to paint two other depictions of jute of Alyscamps, but in horizontal format. These pictures, both entitled Falling Leaves, would hang in Gauguin's room at the quarters the two men shared at the Yellow House and signified their important collaboration. The present work, however remained with Mme Marie Ginoux, the beloved innkeeper at the Yellow House and the model for L'Arlesienne...,